Everyone in (a) League (of their own)

Stephen McAlpine — an Irish sandgroper — has chimed in on the controversy engulfing Rugby League this week. Before I respond to his piece (and its interaction with my piece), I’m keen to make a point made by Paul Gallen — that it’s a travesty that in a week devoted to Women in League, across the NRL, Manly has — like a blokey think piece on International Women’s Day — change the conversation and the focus. If we were playing the sort of round ball game most at home in Ireland (football, or Gaelic, Stephen will have to let me know), this in itself would be an own goal.

Stephen’s a little critical of my conflation of the two issues — greed and homosexuality — being represented on the Manly jersey tomorrow night. He says:

“It is a false dichotomy to declare that the seven Manly players who are refusing to wear the Pride jersey this week for their National Rugby League match (thereby scrubbing them from playing), are being hypocritical because they have had no problems wearing betting and alcohol logos on the same jersey.”

Others have pushed back on my article arguing that gambling, in itself, is not a sin. I thought I might address both these points briefly before moving on to the more interesting critique of my position in Stephen’s article.

I made the point that the gambling industry — as it exists in Australia — is insidiously greedy; it is predatory — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that gambling itself is not greed — you can have a bet with mates to raise the stakes or whatever, or budget a certain amount of dollars for a bet; it might not be great stewardship, and maybe you should spend that money on something better to get your thrills, but yeah, no specific prescription exists to put gambling in the ‘always immoral’ category. But I want to make two analogies for how poorly we think about sin, and how instinctively we western Christians look to individual actions when asking a question about sin, rather than systems of predatory (beastly) evil.

Owning assault rifles is not a sin. The Bible says nothing to condemn owning assault rifles; or swords. I think most Australians would look across the world to the U.S and see what assault rifles now do to people, and what they symbolise, and reach the conclusion that there is an idolatry caught up in the ownership of assault rifles that would make us a little uncomfortable about the predatory manufacturers of weapons who put them in the hands of a culture who’ve got a chronically unhealthy idolatrous relationship with the gun.

Sex is not a sin. It’s an amazing gift from God that is meant to teach us about love, and oneness, and the ‘divine nature and character of God.’ And yet, the pornography industry has commercialised sex, and, in the process, desecrated image bearers and co-opted their images for the lusting eyes and hearts of people around the world.

The gambling industry in Australia is to guns what the weapons industry is in America; a purveyor of idols designed to make money no matter the cost in lives. And sure. Guns can be fun, and they can be useful. But the whole nature of the gun lobby in the U.S is corrupted by an idolatry. Gambling isn’t prohibited in the Bible, but do you think it’s a coincidence that as Jesus is executed, the same crew who’ve pierced his hands, and who’re going to stab his side with a spear, are also gambling for his clothes beneath the cross; there is something beastly about what is being described there, rather than prescribed, that should give us pause before we give the gambling industry a free pass, and treat it like something different to, say, the porn industry.

Because greed is idolatry. Idolatry is a pretty big deal in the Bible; in the New Testament it’s actually idolatry that produces sexual activity contrary to God’s design — the decision to worship and serve created things, rather than the creator — to make gods in our own image, or in the image of our desires, and turn to them in ways that desecrate our humanity and our function as bearers of the divine image.

And the thing is — it’s not a weird dichotomy to say we should treat greed the same way those who take the Bible seriously treat homosexual sex; find me a list in the New Testament that when it lists homosexual sex doesn’t include both?

Romans 1, for example, says: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” (Rom 1:29), 1 Corinthians 6 says “nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” right after it talks about men who have sex with men. 1 Timothy talks about “the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” in chapter 1, and then famously declares “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Greed and homosexuality are not so easy to thematically separate in the New Testament — they might look like a ‘false dichotomy’ to a western Christian whose bought the mantra that ‘greed is good’ long ago; so we don’t look much different at all to our neighbours when it comes to our love of money and material things; but the link is that greed, like homosexuality, is idolatry — and the way Christians stand, or kneel, or fall when it comes to idolatry is a big deal.

Which brings me to the more interesting substance of Stephen’s critique (and one shared by others). He says:

And I disagree with Nathan that somehow to wear the Pride jersey would be a sign of solidarity with others for the sake of winning them to the gospel. Here’s the problem with that: the Pride jersey is promoting a gospel already. Slipping it over your head is not conceding that “Yes, alcohol can wreck lives and yes, betting can cause financial ruin and family damage”, it’s saying ‘I believe in this. In fact I’m proud of it”.

I want to say straight up that the rainbow symbol, as used by plenty of people, is a symbol of idolatry every bit as desecrating of the human as the gun, or the trappings of the gambling industry. Our culture, as Stephen likes to put it, has embraced the worship of self, pleasure, and sex (the “sexular age” he calls it, very clever). I don’t disagree. I disagree with treating one idolater or idolatry as though it is substantially worse than others; especially when there is no observable difference between our behaviour with money, or our behaviour with sex (except the sex or gender of who we’d like to be sexular with). We’re not so different from the western world when it comes to sex either; purity culture is just the flip side of porn culture, designed to treat and view women as objects of male desire, and we have a pretty sketchy and idolatrous view of marriage and sex in terms of personal pleasure and fulfilment; I reckon. It’s just the LGBTIQA+ community we seem to want to substantially differentiate ourselves from; and that is hypocrisy. Absolutely. I’ll call it how I see it.

The rainbow can absolutely be a symbol of an idolatrous vision of the human; in fact, it doesn’t take a mind deeply schooled in the Bible to know that pride, itself, is a form of idolatry of the self, and so even to somehow turn pride into a virtue is a problematic part of our modern schema. It can also be a picture of liberation from a certain sort of persecution (not just limited to the west) that has not only been aimed at ‘those who practice homosexuality’ but anybody who experiences non-straight sexual desire. It can be a statement that someone does share a degree of experiential solidarity with others who have experienced the marginalisation, exclusion, and pain that comes from a minority experience in a world where we don’t always love our neighbours as we love our selves. It can represent a whole host of things — and not — as some of my friendly critics from within broader Aussie Presbyterianism might say be “always an idolatrous celebration of gay sex” — it certainly includes people who have gay sex under that umbrella, but there are plenty of gay Christians committed to a traditional sexual ethic, while navigating relationships of solidarity within the LGBTIQA+ community who’ll tell you the rainbow means something to them as well. The idea that symbols are prescriptive in meaning puts a fascinating and inconsistent amount of weight on us all to navigate the construction of our personhood from forces way outside ourselves, rather than liberating us to act with personal integrity and enter into friendships (or sporting teams) with people who’re different to us. It’s quite similar to the arguments around Halal certified chocolate; the sort of stance we take on these issues is going to impact whose hospitality we can enjoy, and who we can receive as guests, which for Paul is a pretty big part of eating idol meat freely.

I also believe that idolatrous symbols can be subverted, or, if you make it clear what your engagement with an idolatrous world does and doesn’t mean, can be participated in for the sake of the Gospel; consider, for example, food sacrificed to idols in the New Testament world; Paul doesn’t want believers to ask questions about the meaning of the meat they buy in the market; the meat could be an idol symbol, and most naturally is probably assumed to be one — but he says “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” basically, and says “eat it,” and “eat it with your neighbour for the sake of the Gospel” unless your neighbour assume the act of eating it is an act of idolatrous solidarity where you share their gods. Now. If only there was a way for a Christian to wear a pride jersey and make it clear what they believe, and how much they love their image bearing neighbours, and what it is that is driving them to both wear the jersey and differentiate themselves. If only there were some sort of media platform where a player could say “hey guys, I’m a Christian, I believe the Bible says this, but I love my gay neighbour so much and I recognise that they still face so much exclusion from families, from sports with a blokey culture like League, and in the form of stigma that adversely effects their mental health outcomes that I just want to show my love for them.”

You might say “but Folau tried this and look where it got him” — he didn’t. Firstly, he didn’t believe in the Trinity (no idea if he does now). He wasn’t a Christian. Secondly. He said hell awaits homosexuals, and shared a meme from a hate group in the U.S that deliberately excluded greed from the list of sins. Thirdly, he didn’t do it in the context where he was being asked to wear a rainbow striped jersey, he just did it.

There’s another precedent for how people in the Bible can co-exist in idolatrous systems while maintaining their integrity (and knowing and guarding their own hearts). Sometimes it’s going to mean not taking the knee, or wearing the jersey. If there was no avenue for these players to explain what the wearing of the jersey actually represents, if it was all given to them by the powers that be, and they were just compelled to kneel, then, we’re in Daniel territory. Stand up. Be counted. Daniel was, however, an office bearer in a pretty idolatrous regime. He was keen to maintain his integrity in a kingdom that worshipped Marduk and a whole pantheon of violent gods, while keeping the trains running on time (so to speak) as a faithful presence.

But there’s maybe a better example for us in all this; I do think it’s a slight category error to jump straight from Jewish characters in the Old Testament to the modern Christian experience; like we want to be David, and never imagine ourselves as those liberated from having lined up behind Goliath by the grace of God extended to gentiles. Navigating life as a citizen of Israel in Babylon is not the same as navigating life in Babylon as a Babylonian worshipper of Yahweh. I’ve already touched on how a gentile citizen of Corinth might navigate idolatrous Corinth as a Corinthian Christian, but as he is wont to do, Stephen’s piece is about life in modern Babylon.

There’s a bloke in the Old Testament from Aram — that’s Syria, the other nation that ultimately takes Israel (the northern kingdom) into captivity. His name is Naaman. Like Daniel, he’s an official in the empire; unlike Daniel, he’s a native to that empire. He’s a gentile. He has a skin disease. His Israelite slave suggests he should visit Israel and seek healing from her God; he goes. Some interesting stuff goes down where his whole view of the world is challenged, and, having been healed, he makes a request on his departure, he says:

“Please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”

Naaman is going to, in certain moments in the Temple of Rimmon, look a whole lot like he is giving his body, and his heart, to the gods of Assyria; but he has promised his heart — like any Christian has too — to the Lord of Israel. He’s so committed to worshipping God that he’s carting dirt from Israel to set up his own little embassy space in the heart of Assyria; I wonder if he carried the earth in his pockets into that temple to keep reminding himself to worship Yahweh with integrity.

If we’re not going to object to the symbolism of Pointsbet, which is part of an insidious idolatrous industry that destroys lives in the name of greed, then, it is hypocritical to object to the symbolism of the rainbow. If we can reconcile wearing a Pointsbet jersey (and I own one) with ‘not endorsing or celebrating greed’ and can differentiate ourselves by speaking out, such that we maintain our integrity — why is that not possible with a rainbow? Especially if there’s such an obvious path to loving hospitality that might win some to Jesus in doing so?

If we make the wearing of the jersey mean whatever we’ve decided others make it mean, we actually bypass the heart, and the integrity of the individuals involved. We set up an impossible rule where we cannot participate at all in a sexually immoral world and its systems — we will not be able to wear clothes from any company that uses sex to sell a product, or any brand that exploits its workers, without being seen to endorse exactly what we’re told that symbol represents by some agent external to us; like meat in the marketplace. We will lose our ability to subversively and creatively take created things and not worship them, but turn them towards the faithful worship of the creator, or use them as connections between the desires of the human heart and the God who made our hearts who wants us to direct them to him. I think there’s a path to do that for Christians invited to mark pride month, or “wear it purple,” or eat a rainbow cake as an expression of love and solidarity with our human neighbours, and an act of faithfulness to God, with more than a piece of Israel in our pockets; because we have the peace of the Spirit of God dwelling in our hearts.

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